Friday, March 07, 2008
(By request; part one of three.)
I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska during the Great War, but I don’t remember ever being there. The first place I remember is Youngstown, where I was a small kid.
Youngstown was a big deal once. Heavy industry was there, and it was a dirty, sweaty place full of dirty, sweaty people who made big steel slabs and tubes. It had a big, brown, dirty, steaming river running through it, and big black steel mills, lit up all night with orange fire and sparks. Nowadays it’s just kind of an archeological remain; grass is growing and birds are nesting in what’s left of those mills.
So I’ve lived a long time.
I learned how to read in a week or two. That was 1950. We lived at 150 West Glenaven. I sat on the porch and read comic books.
I was good in school, but only in the subjects I didn’t have to work at. The fun stuff was anything involving words and stories. The ugly stuff always had numbers in it, and you had to work like hell sometimes to keep all those damn numbers straight. So you could say I had a problem of being lazy from the start.
I didn’t like my third-grade teacher, Miss Speck, and my mom didn’t like her much either, and also my sisters were moving from being babyish to kidlets about to start school, so Don and Dotty made the jump to the suburbs, and we moved to Boardman. So Meadowbrook Ave was the second place I lived.
Don and Dotty, incidentally, were country mice who became city mice, children of the Great Depression and refugees from the Western Kansas Dust Bowl. They left that barbaric region of cornfields and tent revivals behind and became urban sophisticates and atheistic Unitarians, subscribed to The New Yorker, and learned to tell a fine Chardonnay from a Ripple.
Sex came for me and ended my childhood one night when I was 12. It was traumatic and scary and very pleasurable at the same time. Suddenly, women and girls were the most endlessly interesting life forms on the planet, but even then I had a preference for women. I never did like girls as much.
We never know at that critical time what nearly all of us find out later -- that love is one of the two things in our external lives (as opposed to our internal, mental and spiritual lives) that makes the world go around. The other is money.
Just four years after moving to Meadowbrook Ave we picked up and transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, landing first in Bellingham. There was blue water, purple-and-white mountains, rain and fog, salmon and codfish, Christmas trees, and air with no soot in it. It was a new and intoxicating world, and we settled permanently in the north Seattle slurbs.
Life in the slurbs is boring and a drag, and don’t let anyone tell you different. The high schools are little concentration camps, and there’s nothing to do but watch TV and smoke cigarettes,* which I learned to do in 1958. So there it is -- I smoked for 50 years, and that’s why I have emphysema.
The thing is, some terrible behaviors are actually cultivated, and smoking used to be a practically universal one. All the adults in my life except my grandmothers smoked. Everybody on TV and in the movies smoked. The Marlboro man, with his rippling, tattooed biceps, appealed to my skinny, sex-starved, physically immature, 75-pound male ego. It was a culturally-imposed drug addiction, and nearly fatal. However, in this case as well as at least a couple others, I dodged the reaper.
The other important change in 1958 was the coming of the drums. I thought guys who beat on that African-European hybrid instrument looked real macho, and that if I could play well enough to be in a band, a girl or two might find me irresistible. However, being self-taught, it took a long time to develop adequate proficiency to play in front of people. So by the time my ulterior and sort of secret seduction plan paid off, we had left the rainy country and gone to the fabled and enchanted metropolis of San Francisco Bay.
It was a relief to be in a new place. I’d done a year of college up in Bellingham, and made a mess of it, drinking too much, sliding by academically, and otherwise acting childish and stupid. Naïve, immature, and utterly virginal, having learned nothing at home or in school except how to read, write, and play a decent 4/4 time, I was a mess.
I hitchhiked out of Seattle on a sunny day in June, and ended part I of my life as I crossed over into California -- the promised land -- for the first time.
*True, kids nowadays can also go online and dial up Myspace.com, or text message each other, and smoke marijuana cigarettes. But nothing in the slurbs has fundamentally changed, except now the houses are bigger and there are more foreclosures.
Watercolor of Youngstown Sheet and Tube mill by Howard Fogg, 1956.